Opinion Columns & Blogs

Children and Families must get more aggressive

The workers who investigate reports of abuse and neglect for Child Protective Services – an arm of the Kansas Department for Children and Families – have a profoundly important job.

We talk constantly about the need for parents to take responsibility for their own children, but there will always be a certain percentage who shirk their duties. Even worse, the underbelly of the parenting world will always house a few disgusting criminals – narcissists who lust after power, and who feed their unchecked urges through inconceivable acts of violence and sustained abuse.

We tell neighbors and extended family members to be on the lookout for signs of trouble as well, but again, this doesn’t always happen. Where are these victimized children to turn when the world has all but abandoned them? The investigators at Child Protective Services are supposed to fill this void.

At least one report of abuse or neglect will inevitably hit their desk in almost every case, and when it does, the investigator’s ultimate job is to reach out and help pull these children to safety. If an investigator is having an off day, it could mean the difference between life and death to a child who is trapped in an abusive environment.

As we all know, DCF has been under immense scrutiny as of late, following a string of shocking and high-profile tragedies. But what we all must understand is that these few, tragic cases are not the sole driving force behind the need for broad-sweeping change within DCF.

When we talk about the DCF’s failures, we must not limit the conversation to these high-profile cases. We must wade into the sea of available data – identifying other potential issues at the agency and integrating these talking points into our regular conversations.

Let’s begin now. The State Child Death Review Board and the Children’s Bureau at the federal Office of the Administration for Children & Families both provide annual reports that are accessible online. Both reports provide a treasure trove of data to help us monitor DCF’s performance. Some of this data is quite intriguing.

The Death Review Board’s 2017 report examines data from the 2015 calendar year. There were 21 reported child homicides that year, and 14 of those deaths were caused by child abuse. Interestingly, eight of the families had current or past Child Protective Service involvement, and many of the cases without DCF history were child abuse/neglect deaths that occurred in the first year of life. How many of these deaths were avoidable?

The Children’s Bureau’s “Child Maltreatment 2016” report was released in February. A table titled, “Children who received an investigation or alternative response by disposition” provides data from 51 reporting states (D.C. and Puerto Rico are included). The results are compelling. In Kansas, there were 34,537 cases reported by DCF that year. Child Protective Services found 7.2 percent to be substantiated, 91.9 percent to be unsubstantiated. There were 309 cases closed with no finding.

This seems like an excessive number of unsubstantiated cases, doesn’t it? Perhaps the national data across all states is similar? It isn’t. In total, 16.5 percent of cases were substantiated, 56 percent unsubstantiated.

It could be pointed out that Kansas lowered its evidentiary standard from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance” in July 2016, such that the first half of the year was impacted by the higher standard that is no longer in place. The results are questionable: In 2015 – a year in which the higher evidentiary standard was in place the entire time – the results were not much different. Six percent of reported cases were substantiated, almost 94 percent unsubstantiated.

The lowering of the evidentiary burden had some impact, but not much. Regardless, Kansas remains well below the national average when it comes to substantiating cases of abuse or neglect.

This is just a brief snapshot of the available data, but the upshot is clear: DCF needs to get more aggressive when it comes to investigating reports of abuse or neglect. With new Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel at the helm, there is reason to be optimistic that sweeping change is on the way.

In the meantime, however, we can help protect our children by arming ourselves with data and holding DCF accountable at every turn.

Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.